The Bonfire

by Shay Galloway

  

The bonfire would start promptly 8:30, not one minute before or five minutes after. Sunset was to be at 8:29 according to the mayor’s almanac, which he kept at hand in the top drawer of his desk along with his spare staples, a handful of rubber bands, a packet of tissues, and a campaigning button. From his desk chair, he could hear the townspeople already milling about in the town square. Outside, his people shouted and jeered to one another, children, adolescents, and adults alike. The bonfire had been a tradition in their village for generations. Even before the mayor’s great-grandfather had been mayor, and through all the years thick and thin, of war or depression or epidemic, they had maintained the tradition of the midsummer bonfire. One of those other mayors had tried to quell the tradition once, and he was never re-elected. The current mayor’s wife, not being a native, did not like Bonfire Night. She found it too wild, primitive even—the half-naked, fur-trimmed youth let loose on the town with drums and rattles and without chaperonage. When he argued that adults took part too, his wife scoffed. Each year, as the night approached, she locked herself in the house or went away. She tried to keep their girls in, but he’d put his foot down. “It’s tradition,” he emphasized. She claimed such traditions were antiquated.

The mayor removed the brass watch from his pocket, a relic from his grandfather who had also been mayor. The hands pointed 8:07. The mayor leaned back until he was nearly supine, placing his hands beneath the back of his head so his elbows fanned out like vulture wings and his shirt tightened over the round girth of his belly.

***

Owen had the mayor’s daughter pressed up against a tree, one hand clutched at the small of her back, the other pinched at the wrist by the wire of her bra, palm full with her warm breast. Her skin was hot, her mouth was hot, her breath was hot on his ear as he buried his face in her neck. Out beyond the edge of the woods, beyond the bacchanalia of seven hundred townspeople, they tangled. As the mayor’s daughter tugged and clutched at him, strands of his hair caught in the large diamond on her left hand, and something about that made him smile with her delicate skin between his teeth. She’d never told him her fiancé’s name, nor had he ever asked. It would remain that way, just as they had remained entangled in this mutual liaison. Over the last seven years they’d meet in these woods and greedily press their bodies together. When she was sent away to school—or rather, urged to go away, their liaisons were limited to holidays and summer vacations. On Bonfire Night it was easy. No one kept track of anyone and no one was expected home until well past the rising of the morning sun. This time she’d come back with an engagement ring. Owen had not been aware she’d been dating anyone. But then again, it had never stopped her before. Not that Owen loved her or that she loved him, they were a romp, that’s all.

A female voice called his name through the dark of the woods, separated from the muted din of the village center. The mayor’s daughter dropped her hands and pulled back from him.

“Is that the wife?”

“We’re not married,” Owen said.

“You have a baby,” she said.

“You’ll have one soon, too.” Owen tapped her ring. She shrugged and straightened herself. Owen pulled cigarettes from his pocket and, by the time his not-wife found them, they were smoking and joking as innocently as old chums.

***

Alma moved the worn chair last. It was lumpy, old—once a vibrant lavender now a dull purple-gray, the faux velvet matted and rubbed bare in places. The eastern horizon had fallen ink-blue, but the west still haloed in pink-tinged orange. Alma dragged the recliner across the lawn, digging rivets into the grass. She nudged it so the tilted, peeling house was at its back, and the chair faced the large pile she’d made on the lawn. The pile rose over her head. In the dark, it was difficult to discern the individual objects. But everything was there. She’d made sure. The chair positioned, Alma took the gas can from the porch and emptied the contents on the heap before throwing container onto it as well. The smoke from the town bonfire came faintly on the night air. She struck a match from the small box from her pocket and tossed it, watching the flames leap. She watched them crawl their way along the goods. She lit a cigarette and sat, her arms draped over the lumpy arm rests, her feet planted firmly on the ground.

The town wouldn’t miss Jeff, he was nothing to them, really. Her father had been right about him…Well, damn them, the town, Pop, Jeff. Let her father keep his town and his other daughter, the one who’d listened to their father, the one their mother still spoke to. But Alma was the one who lived practically down the street. On several occasions, Alma and Jeff had climbed on their roof (the roof of his father and grandfather’s small, crumbling old house) and pretended to throw firebombs at her parents’ home.

Now the heat of the fire tightened her skin as she watched the blaze. But Jeff was a moron. And he was lazy. And he was from bad stock. How long had Jeff’s mother lasted? She was younger than forty when she’d withered away. Everyone knew it. Alma was not a witherer. How was it her father had referred to her, how everyone had referred to her? Firecracker. Alma brought her cigarette to her lips, laughed at the steadiness in her hand. She’d burn this whole place to hell.

***

Myrna had loved bonfire nights, but she was much too old now. There had always been something mystical about them, nights alive with a pagan vigor, everyone packed together in the town square, shouting and calling and beguiling one another. She’d loved sitting around with her girlfriends and sisters in the nights prior, sewing together scrappy, rough costumes. Myrna had once even been crowned the Blaze Queen and gotten to light the fire. As soon as the fire was lit and roaring, Myrna had always been filled with a wild excitement as hot as the flames. The first time she’d let Harvey put his hand up her blouse had been on a bonfire night, many many years ago. Of course, she’d also let the current mayor’s father do the same thing, and the mayor’s uncle, and perhaps one or two others. But they didn’t matter, only Harvey mattered, in the end. He hadn’t even been born there, he was a college friend of the current mayor’s uncle, who had been brought home to experience bonfire night.

Myrna rested her knitting against her deflated bosom and sighed at the memories spanning generations. Vividly, she could recall the bare, painted torso of young Harvey moving through the firelight with a drum strapped to his hip, beating on it with steady rhythm. He was new, and yet he fell right in rhythm with the village. She remembered the feel of his muscled arms pulling her into him, the heat of his fervor rising off him like fire itself, the smell of smoke heavy on his tight skin.

Myrna stood stiffly the way aged bodies do, cracking in the bones and tremors in the muscles. With a sigh, she leaned against the window. How long ago was it that she’d been to the bonfire? Last year, a hundred years ago. How long had Harvey been gone? One year, five years, a hundred. She opened the window, hoping to catch the memories on the smoke. The smoke was unusually strong this year; she was over three miles from town and usually the smoke was diluted by the time it reached her. She stood at the open window and looked out in the darkness. She saw the orange glow of town. Yet, isolated in the night, a nearer, brighter glow.

***

Alma was already gone by the time the mayor arrived. The fires had dwindled, dawn rose, the embers extinguished. All that remained was a charred, black skeleton of a house, an ancient lavender-gray chair, and a sooty pile of decimated rubble roped off with yellow caution tape. The mayor’s younger daughter (who’d just been returning home from the festivities when he got the call) had her arm looped through his as they moved around the scene. An officer waved them over to the chair—the only thing other than the damp green lawn left unsinged. The officer pointed to the seat of the chair where a prim cream envelope rest, two words scrawled on it: the first read “Papa,” a line scratched through it, and below, “Mayor.”

  

  

  

  

Shay Galloway studied creative writing at Utah State University and received her Bachelor’s degree in 2012. She received her MFA from Roosevelt University in 2017. Her work has appeared in Origami Journal, Adanna, The Write Launch and The Lindenwood Review. She currently resides in Tacoma, Washington and teaches at Pierce College.

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